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An Inside Look Into Football Scheduling

By Joe Trinacria

With the recently implemented College Football Playoff system, the importance of schools having a strong out of conference schedule has increased greatly.

In order for teams to look their best in the eyes of the playoff selection committee, a signature win against a tough non-conference opponent goes a long way.

Just look at how this year’s “final four” selection was made. Ohio State, which had never been ranked higher than No. 5 all year, slipped into the four-team playoff bracket on the final selection day due to its overall strength of schedule and total quality wins.

Year in and year out there will be a number of top programs with similar records, most likely one-loss teams, all fighting for the last few spots in the final four. The only way for the committee to distinguish these teams is by examining the collective competitiveness of their opponents, and how well each team played up against it.

Verge Ausberry, LSU’s Senior Associate Athletics Director and supervisor of football scheduling, explains that there are a variety of factors to consider when selecting the best non-conference opponent.

“First of all, we look for a quality BCS opponent that is going to give us a good game and draw up some national interest,” Ausberry said.  “For the fan base, you want to have a good game.  Most fans aren’t going to want to come see some of the mid-level teams that we play.  Those are the games that parents bring their little kids to.  The fans want to see us play somebody more on our skill level.”

If any fans out there are thinking that you’ll soon be seeing less of UL-Monroe, New Mexico State, or any of the other “cupcake” programs that LSU has played in recent years – think again.  These games will continue as always to help the program rack up some easy wins, but expect to see at least one decent non-conference match-up for the Tigers each year.

In choosing an opponent from another power conference, fitting the game on the schedule is another logistical barrier for Ausberry.

“The way you place an out of conference game is important – it can’t just be dropped anywhere on the schedule,” Ausberry said.  “If you did that you’d be playing Texas one weekend and then a team like Auburn the next.

“Early games make the most sense for both teams, because if you end up losing you can still come back and win your conference.  That would be good enough to get you into the playoff.  The national champion is probably going to have one loss in today’s game.”

Neutral sites are a great way for out of conference opponents to make some money for their program and share national exposure and other benefits.

LSU played a neutral site game at NRG Stadium in Houston this past season against Wisconsin, and will be traveling up to Lambeau Field in Green Bay to take on the Badgers in 2016.

“Neutral site games help our brand, are fun for fans, and always get us national television exposure,” Ausberry said.  “Houston, Dallas and New Orleans are areas that have strong alumni connections to LSU and we’re comfortable playing there.  It’s good for recruiting and for our fans outside of the Baton Rouge area.  We talk about LSU being a national brand, being bigger than Louisiana.  We want to be at the top, and scheduling top non-conference games helps us get there.”

The current quality non-conference game schedule for LSU is as follows:

2015 – @ Syracuse University

2016 – @ University of Wisconsin (Lambeau Field in Green Bay)

2017 – vs. Syracuse University

2018 – vs. University of Miami (AT&T Stadium in Dallas)

2019 – @ University of Texas

2020 – vs. University of Texas

Luke Boyd: A Football Path Like No Other

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By Joe Trinacria

To say that the road Luke Boyd took to playing big-time college football at LSU was the road less traveled would be an understatement.

Most student-athletes start their playing careers at 18 years old, not 27.  Most do not have to worry about juggling the responsibilities of class in addition to that of a husband and father.  Most are not staff sergeants in the United States Marine Corps and Afghanistan War veterans.

Boyd, however, is all of those things.  He may be the “old man” and resident badass on the Tigers, but in the locker room Boyd is just one of the guys.

“Some of the guys I’m close to on the team will tease me and say I look old when I have a little stubble on my face,” Boyd said with a laugh.  “But they’re not so bad usually.”

Unlike the stars roaming the field for the Tigers every Saturday, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound wide receiver was not a heavily sought after prospect coming out of high school.

There was no pile of recruitment letters filling up his family’s mailbox, and no Division I coaching legends were wandering the halls of Stafford, Virginia’s Colonial Forge High School with hopes of coaxing Boyd towards their program.

“I always knew that I was destined to play college football,” Boyd said.  “Even though I had great numbers coming out of high school, there was no Wes Welker or other little guys making plays in the NFL at the time.  No matter how big your heart was, big schools just weren’t going to take a chance on a guy my size back then.”

After receiving offers from mostly smaller local programs, the LSU walk-on began his collegiate football journey by playing Division III ball at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

Boyd was unhappy with the level of competition at Fairleigh Dickinson, and in 2006 he decided to follow his high school girlfriend (and now wife) Tina to Baton Rouge.  Tina was a track and cross-country runner at Savannah State University in Georgia, who at the time had recently transferred to LSU to run for the Tigers.

Unable to afford the cost of tuition for himself to attend LSU, Boyd worked a series of odd jobs when he first started living in Baton Rouge.  Whether it was working for a moving company or laying floors or landscaping, nothing seemed to fit him quite right.

Boyd eventually obtained his real estate license, but once he discovered that he lacked the passion for selling houses, his next career move would put him on a course of action that would drastically alter his life.  In May 2008, Boyd shipped out for boot camp after enlisting in the Marine Corps.

“It certainly was a culture shock,” Boyd said of his first arrival on the base.  “The Marines break you down completely and build you back up as a new man with discipline and goals.  It’s not just lessons that you bring with you to the football team; it’s something that gives you perspective every single day.  Joining the Marine Corps was the best decision of my life.”

Boyd achieved the rank of sergeant after less than two years of service and was deployed to Afghanistan for active-duty in 2010.  While overseas, he worked as a tactical service data technician, setting up air traffic control towers over the countryside to produce ground and air pictures of the terrain.

Understandably, Boyd prefers not to speak in-depth about his time in Afghanistan, but offered, “We took care of business over there and we were fortunate enough to not have any casualties in our unit.”

After his tour of duty had concluded, Boyd returned home and was stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.  The base had a Marine football team that played against other military and law enforcement teams in the area, which he joined.  In his first year, Boyd starred as a speedy wide receiver, winning league MVP honors in 2011.

As a reward for this achievement, Boyd was given the chance to attend the 2012 NFL Draft in New York City, where he announced the Seattle Seahawks’ third-round selection of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Not one to let opportunity pass him by, Boyd met LSU head coach Les Miles in Radio City Music Hall’s green room.  Miles was in attendance to support former Tigers receiver Reuben Randle, who had just been drafted by the New York Giants in the second round.

Before the draft, Boyd had recently been accepted into the Marine Enlisting Commissioning Education Program (MECEP), which allows veterans to attend the college of their choice free of charge in exchange for remaining on active-duty as an instructor for an on-campus ROTC program.

“I was thinking to myself, man if I could go to school anywhere I would go to LSU and try to walk on,” Boyd said.  “And this was my chance!”

Boyd chatted with Miles about football, and was encouraged to get in touch with Sam Nader, the coordinator of LSU’s walk-on program.  After Nader and other members of the coaching staff reviewed his Marine football highlight film, Boyd was officially invited to walk on to LSU’s football team.

Now while this part of the story may call to mind Rudy, arguably college football’s most famous walk-on player and inspiration behind the 1993 film, Boyd puts any similarities to rest quickly.

“I’m fully capable of playing at this level,” Boyd said in response to the comparisons.  “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken my fair share of licks too.  I can remember the first hit I took at practice was from Lamin Barrow on a crossing route.  I may not have the same speed as I did when I was a young man, but I certainly can hold my own out there.”

It is a walk-on’s often thankless job to help the starting players grow by giving it everything they’ve got, all the time.  Boyd credits his time in the Marines as helping him to persevere.

“On the field, discipline-wise, I’m able to get through anything football can throw at me,” Boyd said.  “All the times you are pushing, fighting, thinking that you can’t go further, the Marine Corps gave me the knowledge that I have more to push.”

Being a student-athlete at a Division I school is a full-time job.

Most fans don’t understand the true commitment it takes day in and day out to be a part of team at that level, with workouts and practices and film study.

“Me and my wife joke that football at LSU is a 40-hour work week,” Boyd said.  “All of the football I had been a part of before was just practicing and some film study.  Playing at this level is definitely a full load, but it’s an experience I would ever trade in.”

A typical day for Boyd begins at 5:30 a.m., where he supervises the Southern University ROTC program until around 7 a.m.Then it’s off to campus for scheduled workouts before class.

Football practice begins at 2 p.m., and Boyd usually doesn’t get home until around 6:30 for dinner.  He spends most of his time at home playing with his 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, before she heads to bed.  After that, Boyd shares some downtime with his wife before he has to hit the books and do it all again the following day.

“I can micromanage a 24-hour time frame to get so much done,” Boyd said.  “When you’re going through basic training there isn’t a moment you aren’t doing something.  You learn to use every minute to do something productive.”

The payoff for Boyd is simple – it’s you, the fans, rocking Tiger Stadium on Saturday nights in Death Valley.

“The first time running out onto that field was an out of body surreal experience,” Boyd said.  “I remember having one of those ‘Am I really here?’ moments, running out and trying to take it in at the same time.

“After you’ve done it a few times it turns into this really amazing feeling.  You just want to get out there and get the crowd pumped up and have them pump you up.  It’s nothing like I’ve ever experienced before.”

Even if he never gets the chance to check into a game for the Tigers, Boyd has cherished his experience with the team.

“I always believed I was good enough to play, but I never thought it could work out as great as this,” Boyd said.  “Sometimes I wish I could’ve played back in my prime. Things hurt a little longer now and I’m not as quick as I once was, but everyone’s got a different path.  Even with the way it worked out, I’ll always have this great story to tell my children and grandchildren some day.”

Four Tigers Receive All-SEC Honors

By Joe Trinacria

While Les Miles and his No. 23 LSU Tigers have been hard at work preparing for their Dec. 30 Music City Bowl matchup against Notre Dame in Nashville, Tennessee, several members of the team have been selected for All-SEC honors by the Associated Press.

Senior left tackle La’el Collins was named to the All-SEC first team, while both junior linebacker Kwon Alexander and senior safety Ronald Martin Jr. made All-SEC second team.

Rounding out the list of honorees for the Tigers was junior offensive guard Vadal Alexander, who was recognized as an honorable mention.

Collins, who was named to the coach’s second team All-SEC last season, stepped up his game in 2014 and anchored the LSU line in the trenches.

Collins was one of the Tigers’ iron men on offense, starting all 12 games and paving the way for LSU to rush for a total of 2,634 yards this year.

Alexander was one of the most feared Tigers on the defensive side of the ball, and rightly so given his excellent playmaking ability.  He led the team with 79 tackles, posting highs in both solo (32) and assisted (47) categories.  Alexander also possessed a strong nose for the ball, contributing two forced fumbles.

Martin is a graduating player that Tiger fans are surely going to miss.  He was one of three LSU players tied with two interceptions this season, none more memorable than when he picked off Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace in the closing seconds to preserve the 10-7 upset win over the Rebels.

When he wasn’t causing turnovers (he also had two forced fumbles to go with his interceptions), Martin was laying punishing hits that made opposing receivers think twice about going over the middle.

The loss of Collins on the offensive line will be tough for LSU, however Alexander is ready to follow in his footsteps and take over as leader.

Alexander has the experience as a veteran player, and already was a key cog on the Tiger line this past season.  The one game that Alexander missed for LSU was against Arkansas, which also happened to be the worst rushing performance the Tigers had all season.

Ground Game Powers Tigers To Victory

By: Joe Trinacria

Outside of the standard pre-game pyrotechnics, there was no air show to be seen at Death Valley on Saturday night.  Instead, Coach Les Miles and his Fighting Tigers stuck with what has been their bread and butter all season – a consistent rushing attack featuring their stable of running back talent.

LSU ran for 303 total yards in their 41-3 dismantling of Kentucky, highlighted by a game to remember for Terrence Magee.  The senior exploded for 127 yards on nine carries with two touchdowns, in addition to leading the Tigers in receiving with three catches for 44 yards.  If that wasn’t enough, No. 18 also contributed on special teams with a dazzling 49-yard kickoff return.

“He’s not an easy tackle,” Miles said of Magee, who averaged 14.1 yards per carry on the night.  “If you give him a little bit of space he’s going to make the exact right cut and he’s going to maximize it downfield.  He’s got great speed.”

Fitting with LSU’s offensive scheme this season, Magee wasn’t the only back who exploited the weak defensive front of the Wildcats.  Freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams combined for a total of 101 yards, with Fournette adding a 1-yard touchdown for good measure.  Even quarterback Anthony Jennings got in on the action, showcasing his speed on a 31-yard scramble in the fourth quarter.

“It’s very important to get the running game going early,” Fournette said.  “The running backs play a big role in the offense.  It opens up the passing game and takes some of the pressure off Anthony.”

The enigmatic Jennings played well enough to extend key drives and protected the lead by playing mistake-free football.  He finished 7 of 14 with 120 yards and a touchdown, and would’ve had another if fullback Connor Neighbors held on to an easy pass early in the first quarter.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the Tigers heavily favored the running game against Kentucky, attempting 51 rushes against only 15 passes.  For LSU to continue their success in the home stretch of the season, look for this ratio to continue.

“Just knowing that the running game is working, we can play-action off of that.  We have a variety of different things we can do off the running game and behind this offensive line it is a great tool,” Jennings said.

LSU hosts bitter SEC rival Ole Miss next Saturday at Tiger Stadium, a must-win game in order to keep the Tigers’ already slim playoff hopes alive.  The No. 3 ranked Rebels have held opponents to an average of only 113.3 rushing yards per game this season, but look for LSU to pound the ball on the ground and see what they’re working with early in the game.  If they can’t seem to find success rushing, Jennings and the passing game will either doom or save the Tigers.

Quarterback Controversy? What Controversy?

By Joe Trinacria

That’s it!  Stop the fight, Les!  Brandon Harris is your starting quarterback moving forward.  I feel like Apollo Creed’s trainer in “Rocky IV” – screaming for Rocky to “throw the damn towel!” in that fateful exhibition fight against Ivan Drago.  This quarterback controversy is over, and it got ugly in a hurry.

A largely inconsistent 2014 campaign presumably came to its catastrophic end for sophomore signal-caller Anthony Jennings, who was pulled in the second quarter of LSU’s 63-7 win over New Mexico State in favor of the true freshman Harris.  An almost clairvoyant head coach Les Miles preached change in his weekly news conference on Monday, and that change finally came for the Tiger Stadium boo birds following an abysmal first quarter performance by Jennings – finally settling the on-again, off-again LSU quarterback battle.

Jennings never appeared completely at ease in the pocket on Saturday night, and he looked to have trouble reading the Aggie defense.  His hesitation not only exhausted options down field, but it also led directly to a sack that killed an early Tiger drive before it even got started.  This isn’t the first time Jennings has been gun-shy this season, which has been a growing concern given the power and quickness of SEC defenses.

Ball protection is key for success at a high level of competition, and Jennings turned the ball over three times in the first quarter alone.  He finished the game 2 of 5 for 11 yards with two interceptions and a fumble lost.

“Anthony Jennings is going to have to get better, and we are going to insist on it,” Miles said following the game.  “I hope he has not lost his confidence.”

Sorry coach, but I think those “We want Harris” chants emanating from the student section already took a major shot to his confidence.  Or maybe it was how he was grossly outplayed by Harris, who gave fans the friendly reminder that the Tigers were in fact playing New Mexico State and not the 1985 Chicago Bears.

The offense runs differently when Harris is in the game, and it looked that way last weekend when he almost completed an improbable comeback against Mississippi State.  Jennings led just one scoring drive (and I use that phrase loosely) against the Aggies, in which four running plays were called to one pass – a short wide receiver screen that went for seven yards.

LSU will not have success moving the ball against quality opponents if protecting its shaky quarterback is the main focus of the offensive play calling.

Meanwhile, Harris stepped in and ushered seven straight scoring drives.  He was dynamic, hitting the throws he needed to make and keeping the defense honest with his own rushing ability.  Jennings has been too quick to use his feet this season, while Harris remains calm under pressure and lets the play develop.

“Brandon came out and showed his ability tonight,” fellow freshman Malachi Dupre said.  “He made the best opportunity out of what he was given.  That was his capability, and he showed everybody what he could do.”

“He his growing every game; he is being more vocal in practice each week.  He is more involved with the team chemistry,” wide receiver Travin Dural said of Harris.

Harris ended his night 11 of 14 for 178 yards with three touchdown passes, in addition to two more scored on the ground.  Harris was the first Tiger freshman quarterback to toss three TD’s in a game.

It’s clear that if LSU were to have any shot at running the table the rest of the season, Harris needs be under center in Auburn next week and every game after.  While coach Miles was hesitant to name Harris the starter immediately, he did perhaps give him the best praise one could ask for: “Brandon came in and did just exactly what we needed him to do.”

 

The Case For Neutral Site Games

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By Joe Trinacria

HOUSTON – Death Valley was truly dead the night of Aug. 30.

The lights were dim, the tailgaters absent, and if you faintly heard the opening bars of “Hold That Tiger” echoing off in the distance, your mind may have been playing tricks on you.

Although the LSU Tigers began their 2014 football season as the designated home team, head coach Les Miles and company were over 250 miles away from Tiger Stadium in the Space City. Per its agreement with Wisconsin, No. 13 LSU opened this year against the No. 14 ranked Badgers at Houston’s NRG Stadium, a decision that was met with mixed feelings by the Tiger faithful.

With the forthcoming College Football Playoff, Division I athletic departments across the country are putting more of an emphasis on a tough non-conference schedule than ever before. In college football today, that means agreeing to mutually beneficial neutral site games.

“It’s very difficult to get a quality non-conference opponent to come play us in Tiger Stadium,” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said. “When you go to a neutral site like Lambeau Field (site of LSU’s 2016 match up with Wisconsin) or to Houston, you get more fans interested in attending the game.”

Economically it makes more sense for powerhouse schools to team up and schedule neutral site games than it would be to meet on each respective campus.

By agreeing to become a part of the Texas Kickoff Classic, both LSU and Wisconsin split a cash payout from the revenue generated by television rights, sponsorships, and ticket sales, among others.

“Financially speaking, we made equal to playing a home game by going to Houston,” Alleva said. “When we go to Wisconsin, we’ll get another payday out of that. If we scheduled a home-and-home, we get nothing from going up there. It’s financially advantageous to play at neutral sites.”

For the away team, it is also advantageous in terms of limiting the ever-important home-field advantage.

While NRG Stadium was primarily a sea of purple and gold, Wisconsin was actually able to acquire more tickets for its fans than it normally would have if the game were held in Baton Rouge.

Generally speaking, roughly 5,000 tickets are dispersed to opposing schools for a standard away game. In Houston, Alleva estimates that the Badgers received anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 tickets.

For the home team, a neutral site game is great a way to engage a strong alumni contingent located outside of the main campus area, in addition to giving the program a leg up on potential future recruiting within that area.

“We really enjoyed the hospitality of Houston. The fact that 50,000 friends of the Tigers were on hand; it was obviously a home game,” LSU coach Les Miles said in his weekly conference. “But, it had all of the markings, the excitement in the stadium, the loudest bells, if you will, that were put off by our fans of a big time bowl game. And our guys, they really enjoyed it.”

The game itself was the culmination of a successful opening night in Houston for the Tigers, with LSU overcoming a 17-point deficit in the third quarter to defeat Wisconsin 28-24.

The Tigers then returned home to Baton Rouge for a clash with FCS offensive juggernaut Sam Houston State, posting a 56-0 win.